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Yael Geffen

Yael Geffen: Footsteps Across Continents

A Global Journey from Heiress to Apprentice: A Tale of Family, Property and Personal Growth!

How can you truly understand the world unless you  have seen it from every angle? This thought provoking question has been the guiding principle for Yael Geffen, the versatile CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, a name synonymous with excellence in the South African real estate landscape. Her journey is a unique narrative of breaking expectations and embracing a global perspective.

In the corridors of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, a legacy unfolded through Yael’s late grandmother, Aida, a pioneer in South Africa’s property industry. Yael’s parents, Lew and Sandy Geffen, continued the legacy by establishing Lew Geffen Estates in 1982, later evolving into Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty.

Yet, Yael’s path deviated. Choosing exploration over convention, she embarked on a transformative six-year sojourn abroad after her graduation. New York City and Los Angeles became her classrooms, and high-powered roles in US advertising and marketing firms became her lessons. Her decision to step away from what was expected of her paved the way for a deeper understanding of the world and herself.

Returning to the family business was not a mere homecoming; it was a fusion of global insights with a rich familial legacy. Despite her international experience, Yael humbly began her journey at the apprentice level, working under the mentorship of her father, Lew, and her late brother, Barak.

Yael Geffen’s story is a testament to the idea that true mastery comes not just from following in the footsteps of those before you but from forging your own path. Her unique blend of global experience and familial wisdom shapes a narrative of innovation and resilience in the competitive world of real estate.

As Yael takes the helm at Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, she brings with her a wealth of

knowledge acquired from different corners of the globe. The question that guided her journey now echoes in her accomplishments: “How can you truly understand the world unless you have seen it from every angle?” Yael Geffen’s story is not just about real estate; it’s about embracing the world as a classroom and redefining the expectations that come with a prestigious family legacy.

Below are the interview highlights:

Could you please elaborate on Lew Geffen Estates and its inception story?

After initially working with his mother, Aida, my father established Lew Geffen Estates almost 42 years ago, and after 20 years, the company had grown exponentially to become a household name, but there is only so far one can go in any industry, and in one specific market.

Our very solid national infrastructure built up over two decades, along with a very talented team, enabled us to forge an affiliation with Sotheby’s International Realty, which elevated our brand to a new level we couldn’t have achieved on our own.

A 300-year-old international brand carries weight and authenticity that no amount of skill or marketing budget can create in mere decades, and, overnight, our client base grew and the customer demographic elevated, as did our international reach.

How would you describe your leadership style, and what values do you prioritize in leading a team?

I always strive to lead from a place of authentic confidence, from a place where my team can respect me rather than fear me.

Let them make mistakes because seeing you cover for them creates such loyalty that they will not want to let that happen again. Invest in your team’s emotional and mental health. Share; be vulnerable but have boundaries.

Each team member can contribute to the team’s success and demise; share that responsibility, and when things go wrong, create a culture where your team allows you, as their leader, to be proactive rather than reactive.

I tend to only hire solution-oriented people. Staff members who focus on problems bring the whole team dynamic down. There is nothing wrong with pointing out issues, challenges, and disruption, but having a Debbie Downer who is fixed on the problem vs. the solution slows everyone down.

Can you share a memorable success story or accomplishment during your tenure as CEO that you are particularly proud of?

We overcame a crisis in our brand when our former CEO was charged with murder. It was a challenge to lead a company and overcome the immense amount of posttraumatic stress everyone felt as well as maintaining the integrity and reputation of the brand.

Winning awards like Standard Bank’s Top Woman in Property and Women of Stature’s CEO of the Year Award were great highlights. My greatest work highlight would be getting the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger, the NY Times bestselling author of The Choice and The Gift.

How do you foster a positive and inclusive workplace culture within your organization?

People are no longer happy just being told what to do; they want to be fully engaged and feel as if their contribution matters. They want to be acknowledged for their work, and they want to believe in those who lead them.

But to meet these higher expectations, leaders have to be able to do more than merely issue instructions and plan strategies. They must also be able to inspire passion, teamwork, loyalty, trust, and confidence, and this requires a much more authentic leadership style.

What are the key challenges you face in your industry, and how do you approach overcoming them?

One of the biggest challenges was adapting to working in a male-dominated environment without sacrificing my femininity and, thereby, myself.

I experienced my lightbulb moment when I lived in New York 20 years ago and was the only female in management at the company at which I worked. The guys would toss a football around at every meeting, but they never thought to pass it to me. One day I asked them to include me, and, although they were shocked, they obliged. I realized then and there that although I did want to be accepted by them as a peer, I did not want to be one of the guys—because I’m not. I’m very much a woman—a feminine one with a unique skill set that contributes significantly to any table.

How do you balance innovation with the need for stability and consistency in your business strategies?

I subscribe to the thought process that technology can build anything except trust. I believe in preserving the core while stimulating progress.

In your opinion, what are the most critical skills or qualities for a leader in today’s rapidly changing business landscape?

  • To lead from a place of authentic confidence—fake it till you make it—is the worst advice I’ve ever heard. When you are your true, authentic self, it helps you stand out from the crowd.
  • Pay attention to details from the get-go, as it’s especially important to develop a thorough knowledge of your field and the expertise that makes you stand out as invaluable to an organization. It is also the best way to command respect.
  • Continually expand your network and develop contacts who will champion you in your industry.

How do you personally invest in your continuous learning and professional development?

To be a great leader and manager, you need to be able to coach and empower your team. I am busy completing several coaching certifications, such as neuro coaching and mentoring, as well as global feminine power coaching. I spend most weekends poring over all the fantastic podcasts, YouTube channels, and TED talks that are free learning and professional development courses.

Beyond professional achievements, what personal values or experiences do you believe have contributed to your success as a CEO?

I left South Africa in 2002 to travel overseas, making it alone in the toughest city in the world, aka New York City. I came back six years later as a different person with an entirely new perspective.

Please give us a few testimonials from your clients and awards or recognition that accurately highlight your achievements in the corporate niche.

  • 2020 Standard Bank’s prestigious Top Woman in Property Award
  • Chosen to represent South Africa as a speaker for the World Leaders Summit in November 2021
  • She was featured as a TEDx speaker at Tedx Gresham Place, delivering her talk “Make it without Faking It” in November 2022.
  • 2023 winner of Woman of Stature’s CEO of the Year.
  • Speaker career highlight is having the honor to interview Dr. Edith Eger in 2021. Edith is an Auschwitz survivor and the renowned author of the worldwide bestsellers The Choice and The Gift.


1.”Yael’s leadership and focus on women in important leadership positions are exactly what we need.”

    • Tammy Fahmi, Sr. VP of Global Servicing and Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC
  1. “She is a pint-sized dynamo, authentic to the core, and her strategic insight is game-changing.”
    • Hloniphizwe Mtolo, Country Chair, Shell Companies
  1. “Her talks are always totally sincere and honest, and they are always laced with more than a trace of humor.”
    • Margaret Hirsch, Founder and Executive Director of Hirsch’s Homestores.